Alonso, Bradley, and the brilliance overlooked by our thirst for goals

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ozzie Alonso needed eight pain killers to play in MLS Cup, and he was the best player on the field. Jeff Kassouf wonders why we don't appreciate defensive midfielders.

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TORONTO – When Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer pulled out the “defense wins championships” cliché following his team’s MLS Cup victory Saturday night, there was an inaudible moan from some journalists throughout the makeshift press room underneath the stands of BMO Field.

Many had just spent the past few hours lamenting the match’s lack of quality. Toronto stars Sebastian Giovinco and the red-hot Jozy Altidore were neutralized by Seattle’s defense, the saving grace for a Sounders team which didn’t put a shot on frame in 120 minutes. A penalty-kick shootout after a 0-0 result was the most likely way the Sounders were going to win that match.

So it’s fitting that Seattle center back Roman Torres would ultimately claim the spotlight in a match which gave off the perception of being dull. Torres and fellow center back Chad Marshall were spectacular in shutting down Toronto’s big-name attack. Torres converted the winning penalty kick, bringing the affable Panamanian to tears in the moments which followed. The Seattle Times published the wonderful headline, “Roman’s empire” on its sports front-page on Sunday.

But Torres claiming the hero’s spotlight was also fitting because it ensured that defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso’s work would remain in the shadows, appreciated but never overtly lauded in a way that would give us a “Wonderful Wizard of Ozzie” headline.

That isn’t out of the ordinary: Goal-scorers grab our attention; that’s why they are paid the big bucks. Torres was the most important of the men to put the ball in the net on Saturday, even if he’s not a forward as he claims he was as a kid in Panama (even his teammates and coach are skeptical of that story). He got the credit for the game-winning PK and for astute defensive work all night.

Alonso, however, was brilliant on Saturday, as he has been all season. And he did it on one good knee. Alonso said postgame that he needed four pain-killer injections before the match and four more at halftime to play through a sprained knee suffered on Nov. 27 in Leg 2 of the Western Conference final.

“One game. Final. You have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I pushed to do everything I have for my team, for my family and we did it.”

Said Schmetzer: “His determination on half a leg, because he has a pulled tendon in his knee, it's just a testament on how much Ozzie wants to win and I can’t be any more proud or happy that he’s in our club.”

Alonso and fellow holding midfielder (who’s more apt to drift wide and forward) Cristian Roldan were as important as Torres and Marshall in stonewalling Toronto’s attack whenever it got in and around the 18-yard box.

Alonso led all Seattle players in passes and tackles. He and Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley – the two captains on the night – were the best players on the field. Each is a holding midfielder in his respective setup, a position which is not glamorous.

The main role of it is to destroy as much as it is to create, but don’t we all want to be entertained? Don’t we prefer those wild, 7-5 aggregate scores that we saw between TFC and Montreal in the greatest MLS playoff series ever?

When we don’t get that – and especially when we’re wishfully expecting it – there’s a sense of disappointment. But Bradley and Alonso were both spectacular in MLS Cup, each shutting down his opponent’s prized Designated Players.

The unfair way the game is often analyzed will see Bradley go down as the captain who missed his spot-kick, but had the script flipped and Toronto prevailed, he surely would have been named the MVP. Just as forwards are judged by goals but ultimately do much more than just score or miss, we collectively need to reevaluate our propensity to default to matches being deemed horrible because star goal-scorers were shut down. There’s a reason they were restrained, and that involves a distinct set of skills, even if they are less entertaining or less quantifiable, like trying to figure out what makes an offensive lineman great.

This nuanced debate is the cloud that has long hovered above Bradley’s head: Is he a No. 6? A No. 8? A No. 10? Can he do more? Many have asked, implying that being an elite holder isn’t enough. Bruce Arena has an answer, and Saturday’s performance from Bradley reaffirmed that it is the correct one.

For Alonso, though, there is no debate. He’s a rock-solid holding midfielder who can frustrate, destroy, and spark the counter the other way. Crucially, he enables Roldan and Nicolas Lodeiro to do the more creative and attractive things that they do. And while Alonso may not get a lot of credit for it, he’s one of the biggest reasons the Sounders lifted MLS Cup for the first time on Saturday, why they were there in the first place and why they are who they are – one of the most high-profile and successful clubs in the league.

Alonso is one of three players to have played for the Sounders every season since the club joined MLS in 2009. He defected from Cuba in 2007 while with his national team for the Gold Cup, and he has since amassed 248 MLS appearances for Seattle (and won four U.S. Open Cups), anchoring the team’s rapid rise to the top of the American men’s club soccer hierarchy. He’s a major piece of the puzzle which has garnered why Seattle enough global attention as one of the best-supported teams on the continent.

“It’s amazing, man. Being here for a long time, waiting for this moment. First final, first Cup. Amazing,” Alonso said.

On Saturday, on “half a leg,” Alonso was irreplaceable for the Sounders’ victory. Sometimes, we need reminding of that, just as we need reminding that defense can certainly win championships, and should be appreciated all the same.

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